Every weekday morning, Christie Henry went through the same simple routine. She would drop off her two young kids at the childcare center near her home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, unwrapping them from their puffy snowsuits and scribbling their names on the sign-in board by the door.
Henry wouldn’t linger long, since she was always on her way to work. But during the few minutes that she spent at the center each morning, she’d frequently chat with the other parents who bustled in around her—about their children, usually, but often the talk would turn to work, or families, or other issues that happened to be on their mind.
Before long, they’d head back out into the cold and on to work. These conversations were small, uncomplicated encounters, soon forgotten in the bustle of the rest of the day.
But how small were they? New research suggests that Henry’s morning routine might have had more impact on her well-being than she realized. In fact, as incidental as her childcare stops seemed, at least one scientist believes she was doing far more than dropping off her kids and chitchatting.
According to research by University of Chicago sociologist Mario Small, Henry was also building “social capital,” the complex system of interpersonal ties and networks that scientists have linked to a host of benefits, from better health to stronger job prospects.
This is an unusual way of thinking about childcare, especially since the national debate over it usually concerns its impact on children’s emotional, behavioral, and intellectual development.
Research conducted by psychologists John Bowlby and Jay Belsky, for instance, as well as studies published by groups such as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), do suggest that under some circumstances, kids in full-time childcare settings may be worse off than their stay-at-home peers. Yet these negative findings have been contradicted by other studies finding that kids in childcare aren’t at a disadvantage.
But what hasn’t been well studied, at least until recently, is the hidden benefits childcare may bring to parents, especially mothers. In a provocative line of research, Small has found that mothers using childcare reap social, psychological, and even financial rewards; these rewards are especially pronounced for low-income mothers. Even when mothers make few friends through a childcare center, they still benefit from the resources they find there.
Small’s work has profound implications beyond childcare. It suggests that at a time when many are lamenting the decline of strong social connections, many of us may actually be building valuable social capital without realizing it—and these “invisible ties” may carry real rewards.
The perks of friendship
For years, studies have found that enjoying greater social capital can improve quality of life for breast cancer survivors, reduce dropout rates for high school students, and increase the chances that job-seekers find employment, among other benefits. At the same time, researchers such as Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, author of the book Bowling Alone, warn that Americans have been experiencing a steady decline in social capital, with most people having fewer friends, participating in fewer civic organizations, and engaging less with their neighbors than they did fifty or sixty years ago. In other words, we’re learning both how vital our connections with each other are, and how elusive.
It was against this scientific backdrop that Small and his colleagues explored how childcare centers broker social capital for mothers. They drew on rich and varied data sources, including a national survey of 3,500 mothers in 20 large U.S. cities, a survey of 300 childcare centers in New York City, 67 in-depth interviews with mothers who had enrolled their children in childcare, and 23 case studies and observations of specific childcare centers.
When the team compared mothers who used childcare with those who did not (controlling for income, race, age, education, employment, and marital status), they discovered that mothers with children in childcare experienced fewer incidences of financial hardship—events such as having insufficient funds to see a physician, falling behind on rent or mortgage, or borrowing money to cover utility bills—than their counterparts. In fact, poor mothers who were struggling financially before they started to use childcare saw their risk of such events decrease after their child’s enrollment.
What’s more, the analysis revealed psychological benefits: Mothers who enrolled a child in childcare were less likely to experience non-clinical depression than those who did not.
Making friends with other parents through childcare was especially beneficial. Poor mothers who formed friendships at childcare centers were more than 40 percent less likely to be depressed than those who made no friends; for mothers of higher income, the figure was nearly 60 percent. And for mothers of higher income, forming friendships through childcare reduced their likelihood of facing material hardship by more than 40 percent—a benefit that disappeared if they made no friends.
“At first,” Small admits, “I assumed mothers would only make superficial friends through childcare centers. Who has time to sit and gossip when more often than not, mothers need childcare in the first place because they work outside the home?
“Surprisingly,” he continues, “many made strong friendships—they used the word ‘family’ to describe them—in which they would go to the theater and plan trips together out of state.”
This makes sense to Sarah Diwan, who runs BabyPhd, a childcare network comprising 18 home childcare providers and 60 families in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “There’s a shared vulnerability when mothers wonder what’s going to happen to their relationship with their child when they go back to work,” says Diwan. “They often come together over the emotional aspect of dropping off a child.”
Henry, who enrolled both her children in a Baby PhD childcare center, agrees. “The immediate empathy formed through that shared experience,” says Henry, “made it easy for friendships to start.” Today, Henry regularly emails and meets for coffee with three other mothers who used the same center.
“Hi and bye” relationships
Other discoveries about social connections emerged from Small’s study. For instance, many mothers formed relationships that were deeply personal, but only within the domain of childcare. These “compartmentally strong friendships,” as Small calls them, extended mothers’ support systems, even though they rarely resulted in meetings outside the center.
Mothers also made weak “hi and bye” relationships that were nevertheless valuable, because they were made trustworthy by the mothers’ shared ties to the center. “If I were to ask if you would hand your child over to somebody whose name, address, and job you didn’t know, any rational person would answer no,” adds Small. “In the context of childcare centers, many mothers were willing to do just that.”
These types of connections wouldn’t necessarily show up in a survey of social networks, because they aren’t what comes to mind when respondents are asked to list their ties—yet they, along with traditional friendships, dramatically increased mothers’ available social capital. “There’s a kind of psychic safety net,” says Small, “that comes from knowing an extra three or four people in this context. You can stay late at your meeting. You can miss your bus. And you have someone you trust to call. It takes the edge off a lot of things.”
This kind of practical support has been invaluable to Virginia Pace, who also found childcare through Diwan’s network. “It’s really nice to be able to compare notes about things like discipline,” she says, “or what to do when a child is sick.” Although Small could not say quantitatively how long after they enroll their children mothers might begin drawing on this kind of social capital, his interviews with mothers suggest that benefits often appear after as little as six months.
But one of the study’s most striking discoveries was that, for poor mothers, the benefits of social capital accrued regardless of whether they made friends at a childcare center. How could this be? Social capital, it turns out, doesn’t just emerge from relationships with people. It can also be the result of relationships with institutions.
For many mothers, enrolling a child in childcare opened up a world of other resources: access to free healthcare through referrals to government-funded health programs that they might not otherwise have known about, help with finding housing and filing taxes, domestic abuse counseling, museum discounts, and referrals to resources like learning disability experts. By plugging into childcare centers that were themselves connected to other nonprofits and government organizations, mothers effectively multiplied the size of their support networks with no effort required on their part.
In a twist that overturns traditional social network analysis—which predicts that neighborhood poverty reduces access to resources—Small found that childcare centers located in poor neighborhoods were more connected to valuable resources than those in affluent areas. “Government organizations and non-profits that offer social support reach out more to childcare centers in poor neighborhoods,” he explains, “inviting them to inform their clients about the services they provide.”
How to choose childcare
Importantly, not all childcare centers do a good job of brokering social capital—they don’t all try to introduce parents for the sake of friendship, for instance. Instead, when social ties form, they tend to do so as an accidental result of center policies.
One surprising factor has to do with timing. “Some centers allow you to drop off your child anytime in the morning and pick them up anytime in the evening,” explains Small. “Others want you to do so within a certain strict window, with cash penalties for being a few minutes late. So everybody beelines to the center after work. And naturally, they sit and talk to other parents.” Furthermore, parents in these centers have an incentive to get to know each other immediately. They exchange numbers, agreeing to help each other out if one of them has a meeting that runs late.
Another factor that encourages social ties is the existence of frequent field trips. In the classroom, one adult can easily supervise ten children. “But,” Small points out, “when you’re at a museum with vases that break or at the zoo with monkeys that bite off toes, you simply need more adults per child. And most centers are not lucrative enterprises. So they need volunteers—and the most obvious ones are parents.”
In both these cases, friendships result unexpectedly—first, from a seemingly burdensome rule, and second, from financial constraints that require childcare centers to rely on parents for practical assistance.
Small, who has no children of his own but has become an expert on childcare by default, suggests the following tips for parents in search of a childcare center that fosters social capital.
- Look for a center that holds yearly elections for its parent association, rather than one that’s been led by the same parent for several years in a row.
- Look for one in which parents are expected to participate in activities such as fundraising.
- Scout around for centers that go on a lot of field trips.
- Though it’s counterintuitive, look for a center that sets strict windows for drop-off and pick-up times.
- Figure out whether a center is well-connected to other local organizations. This can be tricky—but one sign to look for is a frequently-updated bulletin board full of flyers, posters, and notices advertising local resources.
Grab a coffee, make a friend
This research has implications even for those who take care of their children at home or don’t have children at all, as it reveals a broader truth about how we build social networks. Policymakers and scholars argue passionately for fostering civic engagement as a tool against crime, poverty, and inequity; business experts say who you know is more important than what you know; and self-help writers are eager to teach “networking” for happiness and success. But most of these voices focus on the consequences of social connections, and ignore how they’re formed.
Small’s research points to the fact that many of our most valuable social ties are made in the context of our involvement with institutions. We connect with others, almost without noticing it, in the coffee shops we visit, the churches, synagogues, and mosques at which we pray, and the gyms in which we exercise.
“These are not incidental aspects of our connections,” says Small. “They are the core. To the extent that we are our social networks, we are also the organizations we participate in.”